Cultural Differences in Leadership

Subject: Leadership Styles
Pages: 16
Words: 4422
Reading time:
17 min
Study level: PhD


Culture is one of the terms which play a crucial role in human life. As a rule, culture predetermines the way of how people have to behave under certain conditions, what people have to think, and how they should react to the events which happen around them. It is not always easy to define the main purposes of the culture set in a particular society; this is why the impact of culture is observed in all spheres of human life. The 21st Century has witnessed integration and increased cultural interaction among people on a previously unprecedented scale. This frequent interaction between people from varied countries and cultures has risen mostly as a result of the advances that have been made in transport and communication technologies (Gudykunst & Mody, 2002). As a result of this interaction, there has been the major integration of economies and cultures in a process known as globalization. Rosenbloom and Larsen (2003, p.309) advance that as a result of globalization, “businesses from various parts of the world interacting and dealing with each other is expected to be the normal state of affairs for the majority of businesses”. Businesses that were once confined to a particular country will therefore seek relationships all over the world as a result of the communications and transportation technologies that have made such endeavors possible. Bartlett and Goshal (2000) assert that many organizations are today being forced to pursue a strategy of globalization to protect their market share since international competition is increasingly being felt at the local level.

In this multi-cultural sphere, the role of leadership in organizations continues to be as potent as ever. Numerous researches on cross-cultural literature have stressed the close connection between culture and leadership behavior. As a result of this, the traditional concept of universality of leadership patterns has paved the way for the view that leadership attitudes and behavior differ across national cultures. Fikret-Pasa, Kabasakal and Bodur (2001) explicitly argue that the influence of effectiveness of leaders “varies considerably as a result of the cultural forces in which leaders’ function”. With this understanding, this paper shall set out to discuss the significance of cultural differences in Leadership. The paper shall begin by giving the reasons behind the increased cultural interaction that organizations are subjected to. The paper shall then outline the various implications that culture has on leadership in organizations.

Reasons for Increased Cultural Interactions

One of the things that make human life intriguing is the diversity and variation exhibited by various people as a result of their differing values, personalities and physical appearance. Through the centuries, people have come up with different traditions and practices to assist them in their moral, mental and even economic development. Culture has therefore become the basic block in the life construct of human beings. By definition, culture is “a system of values and norms that are shared among a group of people and that, taken together, constitute a design for living” (Vance & Paik 2006, p.39). This definition underpins the notion that culture has a huge impact on the lives of the individual. This encompassing influence of culture results in culture impacting either negatively or positively business dealings. All big organizations which in most cases involve the interaction of people from differing cultural backgrounds must therefore be looked at in the context of culture. This is because culture will have huge implications on the manner in which the organization is run and its productivity. However, it is important to note that culture is a dynamic concept that changes with time.

While many factors have resulted in intercultural interactions, globalization is arguably the single biggest factor. Globalization is defined as a process characterized by major integration of economies and cultures. This process has become commonplace and with it, there has been a significant change in which organizations and the society operates. As communication technologies advance and transportation mean become faster and more affordable, the world is slowly turning into a global village where reduction of barriers between nations is uppermost in the mind of international businessmen. Globalization also includes the increased mobility of capital across the globe with huge implications on the national economies of individual countries. As a result of globalization, there has been an increased interdependence in trade among countries. Leung (2005, p.358) documents that in present times, international trade has culminated in the emergence of a global economy that now has a direct bearing on the domestic economic growth and prosperity of each individual country. As international business ventures have increased, the cultural differences that were once unnoticeable have become accentuated. Businessmen who have moved to exploit the global business opportunities are therefore forced to face the implications that national cultures bring.

In addition to this, the globalization process has led to a situation whereby organizations are at times forced to interact with others so as to make use of available resources and by so doing, ensure their survival. In order to achieve their goals, organizations are seeking out the best talent in the field. As such, organizations are constantly finding themselves working with individuals of different nationalities and cultures. The process of globalization makes people notice how diverse their cultures are and how significant understanding of any culture should be. Kuran & Sandholm (2008, p.201) underline that the vast majority of “communities benefit from having other communities adjust their behaviors”. As a result of this, there exists a subtle competition between cultures with each trying to assert its own traditions and roots. Therefore, consideration should be given to the situations that may come up due to cultural differences in the organizational setting. Failure to do this may result in dire consequences for either the individual or the organization as a whole.

Overview of Leadership

Leadership is defined as the process through which one person uses the help and support of others to achieve certain set goals or tasks. Strong leadership is not only desirable but also essential to the success of the business for it is through it that organizational goals are met. Leadership entails the usage of help and support of other relevant personnel in the organization to attain set objectives. Leaders are therefore invariably bound to work with and through other members of the organization. How the followers perceive the leader is therefore of great importance. There exist various characters and traits which are essential for one to carry out leadership in any setting. A study on “leadership skills and traits” by Stogdill highlights the various traits and skills, which are a prerequisite for one to be an effective leader in an organizational setting (Bartlett & Goshal, 2000). Also, there exist various leadership styles that a person can implement in an organizational setting.

The importance of leadership in organizations cannot be overstated. All through their existence, organizations are constantly pressured to increase their performance levels and productivity. This is especially true in the present-day business environment which is characterized by high levels of competition. Businesses are therefore forced to demonstrate great innovation enhanced performance so as to remain relevant and profitable in the ever-increasingly competitive arena. To achieve the organizational goals of increased productivity, the input of both the individual and groups in the organization remains invaluable. However, for these inputs to make optimal impact there must be a strong leadership to steer the individual and group effort in the right direction (Bartlett & Goshal, 2000). Leadership refers to a process through which one person uses the help and support of others towards achieving a particular goal or task. Strong leadership is not only desirable but also essential to the success of the business for it is through it that organizational goals are met.

Cultural Implications on Leadership

One of the most favored leadership styles in the Western world is transformational leadership which was introduced in 1978 by Burns. According to the transformational leadership theory, a transformational leader is one who “looks for potential motives in followers, seeks to satisfy higher needs, and engages the full person of the follower” (Burns 1978, p.173). Transformational leaders are set apart from other leadership styles due to their consideration of followers’ needs. According to this leadership style, an effective leader is therefore not only able to steer his/her followers towards achievement of goals but also identify with the needs of his followers and show genuine concern in their affairs. Alimo-Metcalfe and Alban-Metcalfe (2001) assert that transformational leaders put followers’ needs over their own leading to followers’ admiration and respect for their leader. This increased the influence that the leader has over the followers’ therefore increasing leadership effectiveness. Den Hartog et al. (1999) state that “some aspects of transformational leadership are universally endorsed as effective leadership behaviors”. Even so, cultures place varying emphasis on leadership behaviors and as such, the leader must understand the cultural values so as to be effective. For example, in cultures where authoritarianism is admired, a leader who is sensitive to the needs of the followers may be perceived as weak and hence ineffective.

Hofstede’s concept of power distance gives insight into the leadership behavior that would be relevant in a particular culture. Different cultures have different power distances and this dictates the leadership style that may be adopted. Power distance refers to “the extent that people have an equal distribution of power” (Vance & Paik 2006, p.41). High power distance implies that power is concentrated at the top of the hierarchy and it is in the hands of a few individuals and in such cultures; there is a rigid hierarchical order. On the other hand, small power distance cultures have power distributed among a greater range of people in an almost equitable manner. Wenzhongh and Grove (1999, p.123) state that in the Western world, efforts to promote an ethic of egalitarianism (at least superficially) are in play. In such a setting where social mobility is high, there is low authoritarianism and little preoccupation with maintaining a rigid hierarchical order. In high power distance cultures, the type of leadership may be very autocratic and controlling. The leader may be expected to give specific instructions to followers since the followers are expected to respect authority and not engage their own creativity. In a small power distance culture, a more democratic approach is used in leadership. The leader is expected to be more participative and a consultative manager may be favored (Vance & Paik 2006, p.41). The reason why different countries have different perceptions of power distance is that the national culture determines the extent to which power distance is accepted and supported by the social environment” (Schumann, 2009, p.64).

Another cultural dimension introduced by Hofstede that is significant in explaining cultural differences in leadership is uncertainty avoidance. The uncertainty avoidance dimension indicates that “people in a low uncertainty avoidance society are more willing to take risks and appreciate flexibility and informality in the workplace” (Vane and Paik (2006, p.40). Different cultures have different levels of tolerance for uncertain situations. High uncertainty avoidance may require a leader who is more bureaucratic in nature. The leader would also be less willing to try out new innovative ideas and will be explicit about what is expected of the followers. On the other hand, in a low uncertainty avoidance culture, the leader will be more open to novel ideas and will adopt a less bureaucratic and un-controlling leadership style. In the low uncertainty avoidance culture, the followers will be more accepting of ambiguity by their leader.

According to the authority on cultural studies, Hofstede, cultural dimensions may be grouped as masculinity vs. Femininity. A masculine dimension is based on achievements motivation. Such a culture is performance-driven with rewards and recognition for performance being the major motivational factors for achievement. In a masculine culture, “the major innovations are the outcome of financial gains and prestige for an individual” (Vance & Paik 2006, p.42). A feminine culture on the other hand is driven by the concern for the well-being of others. In such a culture, the major driving force is the welfare of the other members of an organization. How to deal with people from these different cultural backgrounds will therefore be different. In the masculinity culture, encouraging competition may be the best way in which to reap the maximum benefits. In the feminine culture, cooperation must be fostered in order to achieve optimal results for the organization. Hofstede (2001) asserts that “high masculinity may give rise to a fairly macro type of leadership, where high femininity may lead to a more empathetic consideration type of leadership”. In masculine cultures, high emphasis is placed on values such as assertiveness and dominance.

The individualism-collectivism dimension articulated by Hofstede will also have a huge bearing on the type of leadership behavior adopted. In an individualistic culture the followers are provided with a lot of personal freedom and they are allowed to make decisions based on their perception of what is the best course of action. On the other hand, in a collectivistic culture, people belong to groups and they look after the interests of each other. In a collectivist culture, people are pressured to conform to some set norms and standards. The distinction between individualism and collectivism will influence performance evaluation systems that a leader can come up with. Vance and Paik (2006, p.42) assert that “while in an individualistic culture the emphasis will be on individual merit and achievements, the emphasis in a collectivistic culture will be a contribution to teamwork and group achievements”. Individualism will lead to a competitive type of leadership where the followers are encouraged to outdo each other while high collectivism gives rise to more consultative behavior by the leader. A study by Ralston et al (2008) indicated that the managerial work values were dictated by the national culture and economic ideology inexistent; where economic ideology is defined as the workplace philosophy that pervades the business environment. Individualism and collectivist values present great differences in work values which a leader must take into consideration when dealing with people from cultures that hold the respective values.

A leader will invariably be expected to interact with his followers even as they aim to achieve the set goals and objectives. The manner in which this interaction takes place is dictated by culture. Culture determines the perceptions regarding private and public space and how each is handled. Vance and Paik (2006, p.47) theorize that the treatment of space by cultures can be grouped as specific versus diffuse cultures. In specific cultures, people have a tendency to separate their public and private life and each respective role should ideally not overlap or influence the other. In a diffuse culture, the line between private and public spaces is not clearly defined and a leader’s relationship with the followers may sometimes influence or overlap with their personal lives. When leading in a diffuse culture, establishing a long-term relationship with the followers is crucial to the success of the leadership endeavors.

In all organizations, there arise contentious issues which elicit different reactions from the organization. How these issues are diffused may spell out the difference between the subsequent success and/or failure of the organization. The role of a leader can play a crucial role in ensuring that the crises or contention are managed in a diplomatic. Diplomacy entails the using of power and authority carefully so as to achieve positive outcomes by being unanimous or arriving at a consensus (London 259). An effective leader will therefore be able to diplomatically handle contentious issues and arrive at a solution that is not only workable but also acceptable to the various parties involved. The way that the leader resolves conflicts will vary from culture to culture. Typically, conflicts are resolved through negotiation which is defined as communication for the purpose of persuasion. In the western culture, negotiations will be based on concession trading where each party is required to reduce their demands or aspirations so as to accommodate the other party. When resolving conflicts in the oriental culture, a leader much constantly seek to give face to give facts to the other party and avoid actions that will cause them to lose face.

A study on leadership by Alimo-Metcalfe and Alban-Metcalfe (2001) in which a survey was carried out on over 4,000 managers found that the single most important positive leadership factor was whether the leaders showed genuine concern for their staff. This is because all employees regardless of their occupation or level of demographic group incur significant amounts of stress and demotivation at work if there is a negative relationship which is characterized by a lack of concern with their leaders. It can therefore be deduced that an engaging leadership style characterized by showing genuine concern is linked to significant increase in organizational productivity and superior organizational performance. The manner in which the leader will show concern and hence increase organizational productivity is greatly dependent on the specific culture. A study on the behavior of leaders in Turkey revealed that Turkish leaders showed paternalistic attributes when dealing with their followers (Fikret-Pasa, 2001). This nurturant behavior demonstrated concern from the leaders as they acted as a father to the followers. Concern in most developed countries will be demonstrated in a significantly different manner than the paternalistic mode favored in Turkey.

One of the theories used to categorize leaders is the Implicit Leadership Theory. According to this theory, people have beliefs and assumptions about the characters and mannerisms that distinguish leaders from others. That is there are attributes that distinguish a good leader from a bad one, and an effective leader from an ineffective one. The beliefs, convictions and assumptions are is called Implicit Leadership Theories and they “influence the value that members of a culture place on a selected leader’s behavior, attributes and motives” (House et al. 1997). From this, it can be inferred that cultural backgrounds influence how a leader is perceived and evaluated by his followers. Leadership perception is of uttermost importance since as Leung et al. (2005) declare; one must first of all be looked at as a leader before they are allowed to influence others. House et al. (1997) reveal that the importance of Implicit Leadership Theory is in the likelihood that the perception of a leader by the followers will influence the interaction of the two parties in the workplace. A lack of alignment between followers’ implicit leadership theories and those of the leader will result in dissatisfaction with the leader hence decreased efficiency of the leader.

One of the major leadership theories is Trait Approach which emphasizes the attributes of the leader. This theory holds that leaders possess certain inherent traits and as such, leaders are born rather than made. According to this theory, leaders are born with some internal qualities which mark them out as leaders from others. The Trait Approach theorized that critical leadership traits could be identified in people and the people with these desirable traits could then be given leadership positions. Studies have indicated that leaders possess some traits the most frequent of which are: technical skills, friendliness, assertiveness, emotional intelligence and charisma. For example, the Chinese value modesty and integrating greatly. These traits are consistent with collectivist values that are practiced in the Chinese culture.

Culture dictates the time consciousness of people. Katsioloudes and Hadjidakis (2007, p.41) go on to document that the sense of time differs by culture and while some are exact, others are relative. This has huge implications on the leadership style adopted since while some cultures reward timeliness and promptness; others are more casual in their dealings. In cultures such as the US and Germany where time is perceived as being a tangible asset almost like money, people try to spend it in the most efficient manner possible and values such as punctuality and keeping schedules are applauded. In cultures such as the Latin America, the attitude towards time is less strict and vague terms such as “sometime in the future” are common as opposed to precise times (Katsioloudes & Hadjidakis 2007, p.41). Leaders can therefore experience a lot of conflict and frustration because of differences in the concept of time around the world. In particular, there are cultures where promptness is dictated by the age or socio-economic status of a person. In such cultures, it may be typical for the subordinates to arrive at work or for meetings on time while the top executives have the liberty to arrive late.

One of the leadership styles used is assertiveness which is defined as “the degree to which individuals are assertive, tough, dominant, and aggressive in social relationships” (Dickson, Hartog & Mitchelson 2003, p.746). Assertive leadership is based on the understanding that everyone has a right to make their wants made known to others. This is because assertiveness promotes interpersonal behavior that attempts to maximize the person’s satisfaction of wants while considering the wants of other people. Assertion emphasizes positive interpersonal relationships by providing a basis from which conflicts can be resolved constructively and respectfully. Being direct and straightforward while communicating with others is one of the characteristics of assertiveness. Research indicates that in some cultures such as the US, being direct and unambiguous is greatly valued and is associated with social desirability. However, in other cultures such as the Chinese, indirect communication and subtle ways of conversing are valued. In these cultures, being assertive is seen as abrasive and hence undesirable. In these cultures, leadership attributes such as “indirect”, and “evasive” are more appreciated than assertiveness.

Inspiring the followers is one of the core functions of the leaders. An exemplary leader should ensure that his team has a sense of purpose and is working towards the achievement of some organizational goals. He/she should also set out to generate and sustain trust between the administration, employees and clients. This will result in the promotion of hope and confidence amongst the organizations’ worker force. These qualities heighten the levels of optimism within the organization all the while boosting employee’s morale and guaranteeing future success in all organizational endeavors. These qualities are especially desirable in the present time where optimism in organizations is low as most economies in the world are working towards recovering from the credit crunch that hit almost all countries in the world. A leader who can boost the confidence of the workforce and enthusiastically draw a compelling image of the bright future that all in the organization can look forward to will make a big difference in the organization. The manner in which the leader inspires the followers is a function of the culture. In a collectivist culture, inspiration may be obtained from the overall good that will arise from the efforts of the followers. In individualism, the individual’s best interest will be used as the basis for inspiration.


Leadership exists in all communities and it is fundamental for the effective functioning of all organizations. Koopman (2009) asserts that “different cultural groups may have different conceptions of what leadership in organizations should entail”. The world is slowly moving towards becoming a global economic village where intercultural interaction is the rule and not the exception. In such a setting, effective organizational leadership (which is critical to the success of all organizations) will have to take into consideration the cultural implications of leadership.

Culture shapes the way individual thinks and by extension, the way they perceive effective or ineffective leadership and leadership styles. Research supports the notion that culture also influences the leadership style that an individual will adopt. Singelis and Brown (1995) authoritatively assert that “culture shape individuals’ attitudes, values, and concepts of self”. This inevitably influences the person’s behavior and how they relate with others. As such, the culture-specific view of leadership asserts that the unique cultural characteristics (such as language, religion and values), are more applicable in an increasingly globalized world. As such, distinct leadership approaches are to be expected in different societies.

A leader must be aware of the behaviors and practices that are considered effective by their followers if they are to be successful across cultural settings. Leaders employ varying styles of leadership and the effectiveness of the style adopted is dependent on the specific organization and the cultural background. While some leadership styles may be effective in some cultures, they may elicit negative reactions from others. For example, Den Hartog et al. (1999) warn that charismatic or transformational leaderships may elicit negative reactions in European countries since these leadership styles are related to dictatorial leaders such as Hitler. With these considerations, a leader should be keen not to employ a leadership style that is contrary to the cultural values of his followers. Therefore, a person’s leadership style, which is aligned with his/her cultural values, should only be used if it is in line with the distinct culture of the country he is operating in.

From the discussions presented in this paper, it is clear that the concept of universal leadership behavior is not entirely valid. Despite global and regional integration of economies and the move towards cultural homogenization, cultural differences in the world still remain strong. Huntington (1993, p.25) proposes that the reason why culture will continue to be such an important factor in human lives is that the difference between cultures has taken centuries or even millenniums to cement and as such, these differences cannot be expected to disappear overnight. The impact that culture has on leadership is therefore significant and organizations need to recognize the need to adapt leadership styles to the local environment.


This paper set out to discuss the significance of cultural differences on leadership in an organizational setting. The paper began by highlighting the reasons for the increased cultural interactions that we are currently witnessing. It has been articulated that globalization is the biggest contributing factor to cultural integration. This paper has proceeded to show that culture profoundly influences leadership. From this paper, it is clear that the congruence between the perceptions of the followers and those of the leaders will result in higher performance by the leader. This paper has also demonstrated that while the functions and characteristics of leadership may be similar across cultures, the definition of an effective leader varies across cultures.

Therefore, to be effective when working with persons in diverse cultures, the leader must know the leadership styles that are effective in the particular culture. Only then can the organization reap the benefits of working in a multicultural environment. From this paper, it is clear that an understanding of the cultural differences in leadership is imperative for effective leadership and by extension, the well-being of the organization.


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